The Pirates Are Where The Astros Hope To Be 3-5 Years From Now

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Reviving a dead franchise doesn’t happen overnight and creating a Frankenstein monster of discarded body parts (AKA players who no one else wants and have to be overpaid to join a perennial loser) while hoping for lightning to strike at just the right moment is random, desperate and doomed to fail. The Pirates of the past two decades were in the same position as the current Astros club multiple times with rebuilds, plans, schemes and different architects. Now the Pirates are winning with their own young players and a low payroll. The Astros are starting over after years of trying to win immediately and neglecting the farm system. Both sides are acting intelligently.

The Pirates have the prospects to get any player they want via trade, but chose to take the conservative route in getting Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros.

The Astros are clearing the decks in preparation for their move to the American League.

Both sides gain from the deal that sent Rodriguez from the Astros to the Pirates for three minor leaguers, lefty pitcher Rudy Owens; lefty pitcher Colton Cain; and outfielder Robbie Grossman. Rodriguez’s contract stipulations and the amount the Astros are paying is below, clipped from this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Rodriguez’s contract pays him $10 million this season and $13 million next year as part of a three-year, $34 million contract he signed before the 2011 season. He has a $13 million club option for 2014 that becomes a player option because he was traded.

According to an industry source, the Pirates are responsible for $1.7 million of Rodriguez’s remaining salary in 2012, $8.5 million in 2013 and $7.5 million in 2014. The Pirates only receive cash from the Astros in 2014 if Rodriguez exercises his option.

Rodriguez has long been underrated, is durable, and throws strikes.

In addition to the Rodriguez move, the Pirates are recalling top outfield prospect Starling Marte. It’s doubtful that they’re doing it to showcase him for a trade as other clubs would; the Pirates let their prospects play and it appears as if they’re saying that they’re going to win with their youngsters and a financially sensible plan rather than deal them for veterans, increase the payroll and commit to older players. It’s simplistic to say, “Get ‘X’ veteran star and a young team on the way up will automatically be a contender,” but it doesn’t work that way. The Pirates have turned the corner, in part, because this group was allowed to develop together and there are no star divas in the clubhouse to interfere with manager Clint Hurdle’s discipline. I’d be hesitant to mess with the chemistry by importing a star. Rodriguez is not a star, but he’s pretty good and he’ll benefit from the Pirates vast home park and good defense.

For the Astros, the criticism of Jeff Luhnow sounds similar to the grumpy and idiotic ranting of the crotchety old men who wouldn’t understand OPS if it was mixed in their Metamucil as they scoffed and ridiculed the Astros’ hiring of “non” baseball people Sig Mejdal and Stephanie Wilka to be integral parts of his front office. Luhnow partially invites the eye-rolling with the new age titles such as “Director of Decision Sciences” for his hires and his over-technical manner of speaking as if to say, “These are complicated matters,” when they’re really not all that complicated. But none of that matters once the decisions start being made and the Astros are making the right decisions. Are they supposed to spend money on mediocre veteran players to win 70 games when, by the end of this season and next, it’s going to do more damage to the organization?

They’re moving to the American League West in 2013 to a division with the Rangers, Angels, resurgent Athletics and a Mariners organization flush with young pitching. It makes zero sense to keep or acquire veterans now. As for the suggestion that the Astros are getting middling prospects for their veterans, what were they supposed to get? Their system was barren when Luhnow arrived and he’s stocking it with volume and players he might be able to use. He’s slashing players with high salaries like Rodriguez, Carlos Lee and Brett Myers who aren’t going to be with the team if and when they turn the corner into contention. He’s doing the smart thing.

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The Astros’ New Name

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The Houston Sabers.

It immediately came to me like a bolt of Force Lightning from my Sith fingertips when I read the following tidbit from the NY Times:

ASTROS CONSIDER NAME CHANGE The new Houston Astros owner, Jim Crane, is considering changing the name of the franchise as well as its uniforms.

Crane said Monday that the team would conduct a study to decide whether to switch the name.

The team was established in 1962 as the Colt .45s and has been called the Astros since 1965, when it was changed to coincide with the move to the Astrodome.

Any changes would not happen until 2013, when Houston moves to the American League.

“We had the Colt .45s, and everybody liked that one,” Crane said. “So you can imagine how upset they were when we switched that. What you get when you look at the fan base is the older we get and I’m old, you don’t like to change. But the younger fans are very receptive to change and the older ones aren’t, so that’s what we saw with the American League.”

If the Astros do change their name, I suggest the new name reflect their organizational philosophy and attach itself to something that’s going to attract the Sabermetrics crowd that’s already lining up to worship at the altar of new GM Jeff Luhnow and his lieutenants, the Director of Decision Sciences (whatever that is) Sig Mejdal and Coordinator of Amateur Scouting Stephanie Wilka.

They even interviewed Keith Law! And, depending on who you believe, supposedly offered him a job. Of course that would mean you believe…Law, since Law was the only one who provided any information on this implied (not said, implied) job offer which he graciously turned down (or was never offered) to remain at ESPN.

Apart from a morbid curiosity of how bad they’re going to be; when manager Brad Mills will be fired; which injury lands Fernando Martinez on the disabled list; or if they somehow find a taker for Carlos Lee, there’s really no reason to watch the Astros.

They have to find a way to get people to pay attention to them.

Presumably, Crane will be smart and use this consideration as an opportunity to garner that attention for his club—a club that’s going to be atrocious for the next two seasons before the switch to the American League—and have fans weigh in on what the new name should be.

Whether the new strategies are going to work is the question and I’m curious to see the answer myself.

But if they’re thinking of a new name, there’s only one that fits into the evolving blueprint: the Houston Sabers.

There’s no other choice.

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The Shady Non-Story of Keith Law and the Astros

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How is it possible when any tiny little bit of baseball news on and off the field is reported by multiple outlets that—during a relatively slow time—no one has any details of the job Keith Law was supposedly offered by the Houston Astros?

What you’re telling me is that Jon Heyman, Richard Justice, Tracy Ringolsby, Ken Rosenthal, Jerry Crasnick and Jayson Stark (both of whom work for ESPN with Law) don’t have any details on this bit of “news”? On a baseball news day in which MLB Trade Rumors was posting stories entitled “Phillies Release John Bowker”; “Cardinals Shopping for Right-Handed Reliever”; “Phillies Interested in Jeremy Accardo”; and “Mets Re-Sign Miguel Batista”, the Law-Astros story received no attention and no digging apart from what Law himself said on Twitter?

Really?

What would be said if Sergio Mitre came out and said that he’d chosen to leave the Yankees rather than be the number two starter behind CC Sabathia?

Or if Grady Little said he’d chosen not to return to manage the Red Sox to replace Terry Francona?

They’d be ridiculed.

But because of his status as a former assistant in the Blue Jays front office who has carved out a snarky niche for himself as something other than a stat guy and is now a TV analyst and scout, his pronouncements are given credibility.

Do they warrant credibility?

It’s circular.

Highly educated at Harvard and other fine institutions of higher learning>>writer for Baseball Prospectus>>former Blue Jays assistant>>ESPN analyst/scouting and draft guru>>interviewing with the Astros.

But is it real?

Should we believe him?

It’s hard to tell.

Weeks ago, it was reported that Law interviewed for several front office positions with the new Astros braintrust led by Jeff Luhnow.

Luhnow proceeded to hire Sig Mejdal as his “Director of Decision Sciences” (whatever that is); and Stephanie Wilka as his Coordinator of Amateur Scouting.

But no Law.

Yesterday Law said the following at about noon Eastern time on his Twitter feed:

I have chosen to stay with ESPN. It was a difficult decision, and I’m very grateful to the Astros for the opportunity.

The opportunity for what is unclear.

Did they offer him a job or not?

The tweet was so opaque and laden with ambiguous phrasing and plausible deniability that it looks like a political cover story to protect Law’s reputation as the ultimate baseball insider; someone who knows his way around front offices, crunches the numbers and travels around doing “scouting”. He has a breadth of experience and knowledge, thereby according him as an “expert” in the media.

But is he?

Where is this story and why doesn’t anyone with inside informers and leaks have the details of the job that Law implies—doesn’t say, but implies—the Astros offered?

The only reporting I can find online ends up back with Law’s pronouncement. Here on Hardball Talk, Aaron Gleeman reports what Law said on Twitter.

No one knows what job he was offered?

Circular.

And back to Law.

Law has me blocked on Twitter. Why? Probably because I call him an armchair expert who regurgitates scouting terminology. I don’t call people names or curse at them; his decision to block me is indicative of a skin far too thin to say the things he does in the tone he says them.

Blocking me on Twitter was, retrospectively, a bad idea. Truth be told, I don’t remember if I ever even followed him (I don’t think I did), so blocking me informs the world at large that he knows who I am. That’s unless he scours Twitter during his off hours and blocks random people. With (at the time of this writing) 364,584 followers, that’s highly unlikely.

Law strikes me as someone who’s very conscious of how he’s perceived and is desperately seeking to maintain and bolster his reputation; but when one is caught in prevarications or twisted facts as he was when he had his somewhat embarrassing slap fight with Michael Lewis over Law’s negative review of the film Moneyball and then backtracks like a trapped waterbug, his agenda reveals itself.

Later, in what was clearly an effort to say, “look, the Astros aren’t done hiring after Mejdal and Wilka”, Law tweeted:

Astros have received permission to interview Cardinals regional cross-checker Mike Elias for a Special Assistant role in scouting

Someone asked if that was the same job Law was offered and he replied:

no, I don’t think it’s the same job.

Here’s what I suspect: the Astros interviewed Law as a courtesy without any intention of hiring him; the story of said interview was leaked (possibly by Law himself); this was either an attempt on the part of Law to extract a better deal from ESPN or to shoehorn his way into a front office job with a GM in Luhnow who believes what Law believes in building an organization; the Astros may or may not have offered him a position, but that position was such that it was either designed for him to turn down because it was so low on the totem pole or didn’t happen at all and they’re letting him kindasorta say they did in a face-saving gesture; and now he’s made a great show of “choosing to stay at ESPN” when he really didn’t have much of an alternative to leave from the beginning.

How is a story that begins and ends with one source—the subject of said story—to be taken at face value?

It can’t.

If I’m wrong, I’ll admit it.

But through the principles of deduction, what we’ve learned so far and from whom we’ve learned it, I don’t think I am.

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Jeff Luhnow’s Petri Dish and The Sporting News Misogynist

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Apart from getting webhits for saying something stupidly controversial and drawing the ire of, well, everyone, I’m not sure as to the purpose of this Stan McNeal Sporting News piece about new Astros GM Jeff Luhnow filling out his front office with like-minded people who adhere to stats above all else.

Whether Luhnow’s way is going to work or not is a matter of conjecture. It’s a petri dish of statistical thought and implementation that hasn’t truly been tried before.

J.P. Ricciardi took Moneyball to its logical conclusion by mostly following the book’s tenets to the letter and his results were up-and-down; Paul DePodesta used stats and a total disregard for humanity to destroy the Dodgers and was fired after 20 months; the Rays altered the plot and used a load of high draft picks, fearlessness, intelligence in both old and new school techniques to build a team that made the playoffs in three of the past four years without any money and a rotten ballpark, but no one has done what Luhnow is clearly going to do and has had the time to see if it can succeed.

The posting linked is intentionally offensive and I don’t understand why someone who believes differently would attack his opponent like that. But it’s his column and the Sporting News that has to answer for one of their writers posting it; it’ll resolve itself.

As for the Astros hirings, are you now starting to see why Walt Jocketty and Tony LaRussa viewed Luhnow with jaundiced eyes and were threatened by his presence when he joined the Cardinals? He had the ear of the owner and was coming at baseball decisions from a foreign train of thought diametrically opposed to what they were accustomed to; add in that Jocketty and LaRussa were men with credentials being forced to adhere to a new blueprint and it wasn’t because what they were doing wasn’t working—they’d won doing it their way. Both men could’ve left the Cardinals and would’ve had their choices of jobs immediately.

It’s no wonder the situation got so messy that Jocketty was fired and LaRussa had to resort to sharp-elbowed infighting to get his way.

Is this Luhnow’s fault?

No.

The situation was difficult and the Cardinals fought through the dysfunctional factions and still won.

Now Luhnow’s off on his own and is receiving free rein from the Astros new owner Jim Crane.

“Director of Decision Sciences” is a pompous and ridiculous title for a job anywhere—not just in baseball—but Sig Mejdal fits into what Luhnow wants to create. McNeal calling Stephanie Wilka a “cheerleader” as the lead to her impressive resume and education is idiotic, plain and simple.

If the Astros become a success, the overwhelming probability is that it won’t specifically be because of Luhnow’s stat based theories nor the people he’s hired, but because they’re going to have the number 1 pick in the draft in 2012; they’ll probably have the number 1, 2 or 3 pick in 2013; and are a good bet to be picking that high in 2014 as well.

High draft picks are an equalizer to lots of mistakes as long as Luhnow and his people don’t get too clever.

And they might.

We don’t know.

This is actually a circumstance where I’d dearly love to see draft picks available for trade. What would Luhnow do? Would he pull a Jimmy Johnson NFL move and package the top pick for a series of lower round choices and try to re-stock the organization? Is there a consensus number one pick a la Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in 2012? MLB is missing a golden opportunity to make the draft irresistibly attractive for something other than hype and manufactured stories about players we’ve never heard of and will likely never see in the big leagues.

Luhnow’s ridiculed predecessor as Astros’ GM, Ed Wade, also gave the club a few pieces upon which to build with Brett Wallace, Jonathan Singleton and J.A. Happ. It’s not much for what’s essentially an expansion team, but it’s something.

The problem the Astros and Luhnow have is that everyone is looking for undervalued talent and using the same numbers to find it. How can you find undervalued talent if there’s nothing left to undervalue?

You can’t.

In the coming years, we’re going to see the end result of the stat-based building of a team from scratch by a front office comprised of baseball outsiders crunching numbers. Doing what McNeal did and issuing misogynistic and ignorant proclamations in the guise of “news” and “analysis” is not forwarding the argument for those who, like me, don’t believe that Luhnow’s way is going to work.

McNeal’s not making a case based on anything. He wanted attention and he got it. It’s not a good way to go about getting it and presumably, he’ll pay the price for being a fool. And he’ll deserve it.

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